MOLINE, Ill. — On Feb. 24, Grace McCubbin was in Iowa City helping a friend who was having a minor surgery when she saw she had two missed phone calls from Moline High School.
"I was on the phone, trying to deal with a car repair, so the first two phone calls I got, I declined, you know, I was on the phone, I was doing stuff," McCubbin said. "Then I checked my voicemail and it's visual voicemail, and I immediately see 'emergency with Maddox,' and my stomach turns to ice."
Her son, 16-year-old Maddox McCubbin, had collapsed at Moline High School during study hall. No one had a lot of information at first.
"They think he may have had a seizure," McCubbin said. "They were asking, 'Does he have any history of seizures? Does he have any heart issues? Is there anything?' And I am just in this state of panic. I don't even remember what I said. I think I just kept saying like, 'Is he alive?'"
Amber Hoogheem, the school nurse, was in her office when someone came to get her, saying "We have a student down." She remembers grabbing a wheelchair and running through the hallway during the passing period.
"It was kind of difficult to make it through. We're yelling for people to get over," Hoogheem said. "He was blue and he had agonal breathing, which is kind of a gasping, so it can mimic a seizure if you don't know what you're looking for... I went straight over, felt for a pulse, and there wasn't one and so we started CPR right away."
It had been three minutes since his event began. Someone else ran and got an AED, or automated external defibrillator, and they delivered a shock and two rounds of compressions.
Maddox was taken to a hospital and McCubbin recalled not knowing if he was going to be okay. They didn't know what had happened and were still operating under the assumption that he had a seizure.
"He woke up, disoriented, he didn't know what was going on, he couldn't talk, he was thrashing like he wouldn't let the doctors treat him," McCubbin said. "I heard him screaming in the hallway of the emergency room, and I ran and I burst into the room and like, as soon as I said his name, he like stuck his arms up in the air and grabbed onto me and pulled me to him and all of his vitals started stabilizing. The nurse was like, stay right there, Mom, you stay right there."
Once he was stable, Maddox was transferred to the University of Iowa and it was later determined that he'd suffered from a sudden cardiac arrest.
"Three minutes can make all the difference in the world for someone," Hoogheem said. "That night, I was telling my husband, I'm very concerned because three minutes it can, it can do some damage. And then the next morning, I called our principal and I said, 'Have you heard from the family?' And he had not. And I said, 'Can I have permission to call her?' Because I did not sleep and she got on the phone and she said he was okay and he was 100% himself. And it was probably the biggest relief I've ever felt."
"By the time we got to Iowa City, he was fully alert, passed all of his neurological exams," McCubbin said. "That is a really big deal because as Amber pointed out, he was without oxygen for three minutes."
Maddox left the hospital six days later, and 12 days after his cardiac arrest, he was on stage starring in Moline High School theatre's production of The Wizard of Oz. McCubbin recalled crying watching her son perform.
"I'm so lucky that Moline High School was so well trained and well prepared because they truly were," she said. "The doctors at the University of Iowa commended nurse Amber and her team over and over again because every single thing they did was the right thing. And if anyone had done one thing differently, he probably would have had a different outcome."
Hoogheem said he was lucky it happened during school hours when there were nurses around, adding that it might not have been the same outcome if the cardiac arrest happened an hour later at play practice. He was also lucky an AED was housed so close to the classroom he was in.
"We have three (AEDs) housed in the school and one on the soccer field, but they're all on the first floor by The Bartlett Center, the pool and the Athletic Center," Hoogheem said. "If that had happened on the third floor, and we had to make it down to first floor and back up, we would not have been within that three minutes."
She's asked the district to purchase more AEDs so there can be one on the second floor, the third floor and another in her office. The district is also training more staff to be able to perform CPR.
Meanwhile, McCubbin is also using this instance to educate others.
"I've never felt more helpless in my life," she said. "It felt to me like being struck by lightning, like, how could this happen? This is insane. My child is 16 years old, he's 100% healthy, he wasn't even playing sports. He was sitting in a study hall like this, this is insane. And then I find out that it's not uncommon at all. It's not like getting struck by lightning, but it's actually the third leading cause of natural death for Americans."
She's gotten involved with Project ADAM, a nonprofit organization founded in 1999 by the family of a high school boy who died after suffering a cardiac arrest during a basketball game. An AED could have saved his life. The organization and its affiliate programs advocate for access to AEDs and CPR training in schools and communities. The program has reached schools across the country and has been responsible for more than 200 lives saved, according to its website.
"I wish I could tell you that you can go and have this test, and it'll say yes, your kid's gonna have this (a cardiac arrest) and you put a device in and they'll be fine," McCubbin said. "I wish I could tell you that it was easy. I wish I could tell you that there was a genetic test you get. But I'm sitting here today to tell you that I spoke to a genetic counselor at the University of Iowa. My son's results came back, and there's nothing. There are no genetic anomalies. There's nothing that points to why this happened. And roughly 80% of sudden cardiac arrest survivors never are given a reason why this happened. So we need to stop worrying and focusing on prevention, because we can't. So what we need to do is focus on education, advocacy, support and accessibility."
She's advocating for more people to be CPR trained and for more schools to have AEDs and educational programs and trainings. The Illinois chapter of Project ADAM has set up a fundraising link in Maddox's name to help support this.
"What I'm really hoping to do as a mom, is take our absolute worst nightmare, and try to make one good thing happen," McCubbin said. "If one child is saved, just one, because of this fundraiser, because of me telling this story, it was totally worth all of it... I can't think too long and too hard about all of the what ifs, about the fact that my son is alive, the boy who lived, the miracle, I can't think about it too often. I'm just, I'm awash with gratitude and I want to pay it forward. I want to make people aware."
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